Dickey, James (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
James Dickey 1923-1997
(Full name James Lafayette Dickey) American poet, novelist, critic, essayist, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.
A prominent figure in contemporary American literature, Dickey is best known for his intense exploration of the primal, irrational, creative, and ordering forces in life. Often classified as a visionary Romantic in the tradition of Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, and Theodore Roethke, Dickey emphasized the primacy of imagination and examined the relationship between humanity and nature. He frequently described confrontations in war, sports, and nature as a means for probing violence, mortality, creativity, and social values. In his poetry, Dickey rejected formalism, artifice, and confession, favoring instead a narrative mode that features energetic rhythms and charged emotions.
Dickey was born February 2, 1923, in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead. In 1942 he attended Clemson College, but left to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps. During World War II, he logged nearly 500 combat hours, serving in the South Pacific. After the war, Dickey attended Vanderbilt University, graduating with his B.A. in 1949, and earning his M.A. in 1950. In 1956 Dickey, then a successful advertising copywriter and executive, cultivated a friendship with Ezra Pound, whose essays on poetry were to have a considerable influence on Dickey's image-centered approach to poetry. During the 1960s, Dickey won wide acclaim and several major literary awards for his poetry. He also was appointed Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He continued to be active during the 1980s and 1990s, teaching until five days before his death January 19, 1997.
Dickey's poetry was often inspired by crucial events in his own life. His early poetry, for example, is infused with guilt over his role as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War, ruminations on his older brother's death, and reflections upon his Southern heritage. In his first three volumes of verse—Into the Stone and Other Poems (1960), Drowning with Others (1962), and Helmets (1964)—Dickey explores such topics as war, family, love, death, spiritual rebirth, nature, and survival. These poems are generally arranged in traditional stanzaic units and are marked by an expansive tone. These volumes also contain several poems about the wilderness in which Dickey stresses the importance of maintaining the primal physical and imaginative powers that he believes are suppressed by civilization. Buckdancer's Choice (1965), which won a National Book Award, signaled a shift in Dickey's verse to freer, more complex forms. Employing internal monologues, varied spacing between words and phrases in place of punctuation, and subtler rhythms, Buckdancer's Choice investigates human suffering in its myriad forms.
Throughout his later poetry, Dickey laments the loss of youth, expresses a profound fear of mortality, and explores visionary qualities and creative energies. This verse evidences a more self-reflexive voice and an increasingly restrained, meditative style. He also began to employ what he termed “country surrealism,” a technique by which he obscures distinctions between dreams and reality to accommodate the irrational. For example, “The Zodiac” is a long, self-referential poem about an intensely visionary alcoholic artist who has difficulty distinguishing between illusion and reality. The title poem of The Strength of the Fields (1979), which Dickey read at Jimmy Carter's presidential inauguration, affirms faith in humanity while addressing various human dilemmas.
In Deliverance (1970), which was adapted into an acclaimed film, Dickey reiterates several themes prevalent in his verse, primarily the rejuvenation of human life through interaction with nature. The novel describes four suburban men who seek diversion from their unfulfilling lives by canoeing down a remote and dangerous river. They encounter natural threats and human violence, forcing them to rely on primitive instincts in order to survive. Dickey's second novel, Alnilam (1987), is an ambitious, experimental work centering on a blind man's attempts to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his son's death. His last novel, To the White Sea (1993), is the story of a seemingly sociopathic soldier forced to parachute into Japan during World War II. In addition to his writing, Dickey also is an esteemed poetry critic. In such volumes of essays and journals as Babel to Byzantium (1968), Self-Interviews (1970), Sorties (1971), and Crux (1999), he offers subjective viewpoints of poetry and asserts his preference for artistic intensity and intuition.
Dickey is considered one of the major figures in American literature during the latter half of the twentieth century. Lauded as a significant American poet, he might be the most frequently discussed poet of his generation. Much has been written about Dickey's controversial public persona and pursuit of celebrity, and the ways in which his legendary personality affected his work and literary reputation. The role of his Southern heritage is also a rich area of critical discussion, as several reviewers have explored Dickey's place within the pantheon of Southern poets. Another area of debate has been Dickey's interest in primitivism, the concept that civilized man should maintain contact with nature, sensations, and primal impulses often suppressed by modern society. This theme was viewed as a recurring one in Dickey's oeuvre and was embodied in the best-selling novel, Deliverance.
Into the Stone, and Other Poems (poetry) 1960
Drowning with Others (poetry) 1962
Helmets (poetry) 1964
The Suspect in Poetry (criticism) 1964
Two Poems of the Air (poetry) 1964
Buckdancer's Choice (poetry) 1965
Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now (criticism) 1968
Poems, 1957-1967 (poetry) 1968
Deliverance (novel) 1970
The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy (poetry) 1970
Self-Interviews (monologues) 1970
Sorties: Journals and New Essays (essays) 1971
Tucky the Hunter (children's poetry) 1978
The Strength of Fields (poetry) 1979
Scion (poetry) 1980
Falling, May Day Sermon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1981
Puella (poetry) 1982
The Central Motion (poetry) 1983
Night Hurdling: Poems, Essays, Conversations, Commencements, and Afterwords (poetry, essays, and interviews) 1983
Alnilam (novel) 1987
The Eagle's Mile (poetry) 1990
The Whole Motion: Collected Poems, 1945-1992 (poetry) 1992
(The entire section is 143 words.)
SOURCE: Berry, Wendell. “James Dickey's New Book.” Poetry 105 (November 1964): 130-31.
[In the following review, Berry describes some of the poems in Helmets as clumsy and mechanical.]
Going into this book [Helmets] is like going into an experience in your own life that you know will change your mind. You either go in willing to let it happen, or you stay out. There are a lot of good poems here. “The Dusk of Horses,” “Fence Wire,” “Cherrylog Road,” “The Scarred Girl,” “The Ice Skin, Drinking from a Helmet,” and “Bums, on Waking” aren't the only poems I thought moving and good, but they are the ones I keep the firmest, clearest memory of.
Thinking just of the poems I've named, I realize to what an extent sympathy is the burden of this book, how much there is of seeing into the life of beings other than the poet. The reader is moved imaginatively and sympathetically into the minds of horses at nightfall, of farmer and animals divided and held together by fences, of a young girl scarred in a wreck, of bums waking up in places they never intended to come to.
“Drinking from a Helmet” represents not the fact of sympathy, but the making of it. The poet moves from his own isolated experience of war into an almost mystical realization (and assumption) of the life of the dead soldier from whose helmet he drinks. A tense balance is...
(The entire section is 629 words.)
SOURCE: Strange, William C. “To Dream, To Remember: James Dickey's Buckdancer's Choice.” Northwest Review 7, no. 2 (fall-winter 1965-1966): 33-42.
[In the following essay, Strange identifies dream and memory as the main thematic concerns of the poems comprising Buckdancer's Choice.]
Dream, memory, and poem are an ancient knot in a web of tempting correspondencies: image and event, possibility and necessity, wish and commandment, future and past. At one time or another and in various measure, all of these pairs have been used to explain that tense presence which is a poem, and they are still useful, permitting one to describe handily the tendency of modern poetry as a shift from memory and its co-ordinates to dream. Of course, there are exceptions. Old Ovid seems a poet of the dream while David Jones clearly writes for us out of a remarkable memory. Still, our time is distinguished by poet-theorists such as André Breton, who talks of “l'homme, ce rêveur définitif,” and we support with our prizes the Seventy-seven Dream Songs of John Berryman. And when the drift of western poetry is seen in large perspective, as the pitch of its weight slips from heroic to lyric, then its direction is unmistakable. The Greeks called memory the mother of poetry; we moderns know a deep well of the unremembered where poetry and dreams are born.
James Dickey's most recent book,...
(The entire section is 3753 words.)
SOURCE: Carroll, Paul. “James Dickey as Critic.” Chicago Review 20 (November 1968): 82-7.
[In the following favorable review of Babel to Byzantium, Carroll examines the critical backlash against Dickey's work.]
After I talk about this collection of book reviews and essays on modern poets—which seems to me the sanest, most invigorating and most fun to read since Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age (1953)—I want to try and put into perspective a nasty attempt at poetic fratricide in which James Dickey has been the target. Why I bother with such dirty literary linen is simple: I want everybody to read and enjoy Mr. Dickey without the distraction encouraged by the scuttlebutt resulting from the attempt at fratricide, which was manufactured, for the most part, by envy, it would seem. Not only has James Dickey shown the unmistakable “blue sign of his god on the forehead,” as St.-John Perse describes the true poet, which holds the promise that we may have a major poet in our midst (indeed, why his collected Poems: 1957-67 failed to win the 1968 Pulitzer Prize remains, to my mind, more baffling than the intricacies displayed in most of the theories regarding John F. Kennedy's assassination) but he also writes the kind of criticism I admire—namely, direct, personal talk about this poet or that poem in his or its own skin, as it were.
What commends the prose in...
(The entire section is 2505 words.)
SOURCE: Morris, Harry. “A Formal View of the Poetry of Dickey, Garrigue, and Simpson.” Sewanee Review 77, no. 2 (April 1969): 318-22.
[In the following excerpt, Morris provides a negative assessment of Poems, 1957-1967, calling the poems in the volume dull, awkward, and stylistically inferior.]
James Dickey, Jean Garrigue, and Louis Simpson are ready apparently for an assessment of their work to date; for each poet, the current book is a selection from all his past work plus a final section containing new poems.
Traditionally we have expected poets to develop their powers of observation, to give form to their utterance; to be concise and precise, to seek a verbal music, and to enrich the texture of their verse with the devices of rhetoric. In Mr. Dickey's verse [in Poems, 1957-1967] I find the observation myopic, sometimes filmed completely over; form is adhered to but so meaninglessly or inexactly as to suggest casual concern only or incredibly inept management. In addition to what seems a total inability to achieve conciseness within a single poem, Mr. Dickey appears unable also to conclude a poem in under thirty lines. Of the 108 pieces in this volume, only seven comprise fewer than thirty lines. The majority of the poems are close to fifty lines or over. Precision in diction is of so little concern to the poet that in many cases even prepositions are employed...
(The entire section is 1322 words.)
SOURCE: Lensing, George. A review of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, by James Dickey. Carolina Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1970): 90-1.
[In the following essay, Lensing offers a negative review of The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead, and Mercy.]
When James Dickey's Poems 1957-1967 appeared three years ago, the poet found himself suddenly promoted to the front ranks of American versifiers: Louis Untermeyer described the volume as the “outstanding collection of one man's poems to appear in this decade,” while Peter Davison suggested that Dickey might well nudge his way onto the niche of eminence with Robert Lowell as a “major” poet. Dickey's next volume, therefore, has been awaited with some anticipation, and The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, it seems to me, does not forcibly advance his reputation.
Dickey's power as a poet has depended upon a fairly repetitive technique: a human psyche is situated in some natural setting and proceeds surrealistically toward a metaphorical merger with any of various forms of plant, animal or human life. The process is always accompanied by an accumulative verbal intensity and excitement. As Dickey himself has said of his own work, “I meant to try to get a fusion of inner and outer states, of dream, fantasy and illusion where everything partakes of the...
(The entire section is 591 words.)
SOURCE: Calhoun, Richard J. “‘His Reason Argues with His Invention’: James Dickey's Self-Interviews and The Eye-Beaters.” South Carolina Review 3, no. 2 (June 1971): 9-16.
[In the following essay, Calhoun surveys the weakness in Dickey's Self-Interviews and The Eye-Beaters.]
James Dickey's first novel, Deliverance, was such a phenomenal success that anything else he produced in 1970 must by comparison seem rather neglected. Early last year he published his sixth volume of poems, a slim paperback with one of the most ungainly titles in the history of American publishing—The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. Then just as the excitement over Deliverance was abating, a third 1970 volume, Self-Interviews, appeared, simpler in its title but unique in its conception. It seems that Dickey had agreed to expound via the tape recorder on a series of topics outlined for him by two young teachers, Barbara and James Reiss, who feel that they have midwifed something “neither quite like a typical tape-recorded interview nor autobiography” but rather “a new genre, the tape recorded self-interview.”
This new genre of the McLuhan era does have a much older literary antecedent which it may not quite equal for literary style or drama, the dialogue in which the writer creates two voices, one his, the other in...
(The entire section is 2834 words.)
SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Out of Stone into Flesh: The Imagination of James Dickey.” Modern Poetry Studies, 5, no. 2 (autumn 1974): 97-144.
[In the following excerpt from an essay, Oates traces Dickey's poetic development.]
Despair and exultation Lie down together and thrash In the hot grass, no blade moving …
—Dickey, “Turning Away”
A man cannot pay as much attention to himself as I do without living in Hell all the time.
The remarkable poetic achievement of James Dickey is characterized by a restless concern with the poet's “personality” in its relationships to the world of nature and of experience. His work is rarely confessional in the sense of the term as we have come to know it, yet it is always personal—at times contemplative, at times dramatic. Because Dickey has become so controversial in recent years his incredible lyric and dramatic talent has not been adequately recognized, and his ceaseless, often monomaniacal questioning of identity, of the self, of that mysterious and elusive concept we call the personality, has not been investigated.
Yet this is only natural: it is always the fate of individuals who give voice to an era's hidden, atavistic desires, its “taboos,” to be controversial and therefore...
(The entire section is 14956 words.)
SOURCE: Plumly, Stanley. A review of The Zodiac, by James Dickey. American Poetry Review 6, no. 4 (July 1977): 42-3.
[In the following unfavorable review, Plumly asserts that The Zodiac is “overwhelmed by its own ambition.”]
James Dickey ends his twelve-part, twelve-tiered poem of The Zodiac with a kind of nautical prayer.
Oh my own soul, put me in a solar boat. Come into one of these hands Bringing quietness and the rare belief That I can steer this strange craft to the morning Land that sleeps in the universe on all horizons And give this home-come man who listens in his room To the rush and flare of his father Drawn at the speed of light to Heaven Through the wrong end of his telescope, expanding the universe …
This moment, almost an interlude in spite of its conclusive position, suggests not only a rest from the labors of a long journey but an arrival at a place of reconciliation. This, for the poet and his poem, is the Land of Nod, the still-point in his ever-turning world. It is also the most believable writing in a book overwhelmed by its own ambition. Dickey has been among our most distinguished poets, unique, really, in terms of the energy, the...
(The entire section is 1116 words.)
SOURCE: French, James M. “A Horoscope Reading.” Prairie Schooner 52, no. 1 (spring 1978): 113-15.
[In the following review, French provides a negative assessment of The Zodiac.]
James Dickey's reputation as a writer has grown in the past ten years. In fact, Dickey has lately become a highly visible public figure as well. Within the past two years his poetic productivity and presence has not diminished. In that period he has published The Zodiac, written the text to In God's Image, and graced the ritual occasion of Jimmy Carter's inauguration. As a poet, James Dickey is not undeserving of the recognition he has now achieved. Yet at least one of Dickey's latest offerings, The Zodiac, does not demonstrate the strength of much of the earlier verse.
The Zodiac is by far Dickey's most ambitious effort to compose a long and major poem. In the headnote he describes Zodiac as a poem “based on another by the same title” (p. 7) by the Dutch poet, Hendrik Marsman. Dickey discounts his work as translation; instead, “it is a story of a drunken and perhaps dying Dutch poet who returns to his home … and tries desperately to relate himself to the universe.” It is in this mode that Dickey presents Marsman and transforms him into a symbolic vehicle. One is not surprised, then, to see Marsman's tragic life in terms of a self-conscious examination of the...
(The entire section is 798 words.)
SOURCE: Mizejewski, Linda. “Shamanism Toward Confessionalism: James Dickey, Poet.” Georgia Review 32 (summer 1978): 409-19.
[In the following essay, Mizejewski explores the confessional poetry of The Zodiac, focusing on Dickey's poetic persona.]
Since the mid-sixties or so, one or two people at almost any English Department cocktail party have had a James Dickey story. Perhaps even more amazing than the stories themselves has been Dickey's mercurial quality that renders an anecdote from nearly every college reading and from so many personal encounters. After 1972, the stories became Jim Dickey-Burt Reynolds stories, and after January, 1977, there were tales from Carter's inaugural, but by then they were appearing in popular news magazines. Developing as a celebrity-poet, Dickey has broken from the university circuits of rumors and readings, and materialized in middle-class living rooms—in glossy coffeetable books and on the television screen, where he is likely to be reciting from his Biblical prose-poetry on a talk show.
President Carter certainly blessed an unusual inaugural poet. Unlike E. A. Robinson or Robert Frost, who had been nationally honored by Theodore Roosevelt and Kennedy, Dickey does not write an easily accessible “popular” poetry. His poems are certainly not academic, but the average reader who believes he can understand the somewhat deceptive simplicity...
(The entire section is 4152 words.)
SOURCE: Cassity, Turner. “Double Dutch.” Parnassus 8, no. 2 (1980): 177-93.
[In the following mixed review of The Strength of Fields and The Zodiac, Cassity questions stylistic elements of Dickey's poetry.]
If you write in lines so long that your book has to be printed sideways, it seems to me you might well reconsider your methods. However, James Dickey has always been the least succinct of poets, and here, in a grand horizontal sprawl, is The Strength of Fields, a collection of lyrics and of adaptations from other languages. Dickey writes with undiminished vigor, but I am not sure I can say this as praise. Intellectually, he is so seldom on secure ground that he ought perhaps to proceed with caution.
His title poem, for example, is in direct contradiction to the Warren Court. It seems to say that politicians do represent trees and stones.
Men are not where he is Exactly now, but they are around him around him like the strength Of fields … The stars splinter, pointed and wild. The dead lie under The pastures. They look on and help.
Perhaps President Carter, for whose inauguration the poem was written, needs livelier helpers. One is reminded of those unreadable Scandinavian novels about “The Land.” If Dickey covets a Nobel Prize, The Strength...
(The entire section is 5115 words.)
SOURCE: Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. “The Literary Criticism, Lately Neglected.” In James Dickey, pp. 124-35. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
[In the following essay, Calhoun and Hill discuss Dickey's reputation and work as a literary critic.]
THE “SUSPECT” IN POETRY
James Dickey's career as a literary critic began when he was poetry editor and reviewer for the Sewanee Review. There he developed something of a reputation as a “hatchet man” who deftly chopped down the reputations of poets he did not respect. Robert Penn Warren, later a friend and admirer, recalls: “When James Dickey came to my attention as a reviewer, I thought he was one of the roughest around.”1 This reputation was not quite deserved since Dickey's critical hatchet was reserved only for what he called in the first collection of his reviews the “suspect” in poetry. Dickey's reviews were perceived variously as entertaining, opinionated, sometimes harsh, displaying an excess of ego; but not, as they might well be regarded in retrospect, as important contributions to Dickey's own vision of a freer, personal, but still carefully crafted postmodernist poetry. Style and tone were admired more than substance.
There are other reasons for James Dickey's meager reputation as a literary critic. First of all, he began as a poetry reviewer, and he has...
(The entire section is 5422 words.)
SOURCE: Baughman, Ronald. “Deliverance.” In Understanding James Dickey, pp. 109-21. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985.
[In the following essay, Baughman explores the theme of renewal in Deliverance.]
How Dickey changes and forms again is dramatically demonstrated in his only novel to date, Deliverance. In this work his protagonist achieves the renewal—the deliverance—for which the writer has struggled throughout his poetry. The speaker is able to find a new order, a new connection, a new sense of real well-being that becomes his passionate affirmation of life. Because the economy of language required in poetry does not allow for the expansive analysis that fiction provides, it is understandable that Dickey most fully develops this transforming function of survivor's guilt in his novel.
The ordeal shared by the four suburbanites who travel down the river in Deliverance clearly parallels that confronting the soldier in combat. In the first chapter of the novel, “Before,” the suburbanites are revealed as quite ordinary men leading quite ordinary, inconsequential lives; they, like raw recruits, have not tested their courage or themselves. During the central three chapters—“September 14th,” “September 15th,” and “September 16th”—they are brutalized both by the wild river and by vicious mountain men; in order to survive they,...
(The entire section is 3523 words.)
SOURCE: Christensen, Paul. “Toward the Abyss: James Dickey at Middle Age.” Parnassus 13 (spring-summer 1986): 202-19.
[In the following essay, Christensen contends that the problem with The Central Motion: Poems, 1968-1979 is that Dickey “has tried to deal with middle age, his own, and fails to perceive in it value or meaning.”]
“The secret is that on whiteness you can release The blackness …”
The psychological geography of America is familiar by now: the East and West form a significant polarity in culture—the one old and resolute, fixed by time; the other fluid and novel, sending back its innovations which ruffle and reconstitute American identity. East and West make up a sort of tectonic plate of crumbling and emerging reality. The Midwest is that drab emptiness no one can fill except with a certain malevolence of humor: it is the only place in America that never tempered its reality with a threatening frontier. As in the case of Indiana, the heartland of America until the 1950s, where no Indians (despite its name!) confronted the whites who settled it. Almost at the moment it was occupied, there ensued in the Midwest its tedious image of a placid, almost rancid domesticity, from which artists and thinkers of each generation have longed for and immortalized their dreams of escape—either to the East or to the West, depending...
(The entire section is 7028 words.)
SOURCE: Spears, Monroe K. “James Dickey as a Southern Visionary.” Virginia Quarterly Review 63, no. 1 (winter 1987): 110-23.
[In the following essay, Spears places Dickey and his work within the context of the Southern literary tradition.]
Some years ago James Dickey, who will be 64 next month, responded to an interviewer's question about the sense in which he was a Southern writer with the ringing declaration that “the best thing that ever happened to me was to have been born a Southerner. First as a man and then as a writer.” He would not want to feel that he was limited in any way by being a Southerner or was expected to “indulge in the kind of regional chauvinism that has sometimes been indulged in by Southern writers,” he said, but the tragic history of the South gave him a set of values “some of which are deplorable, obviously, but also some of which are the best things that I have ever had as a human being.” Southerners, he suggested, let their ancestors help: “I have only run-of-the-mill ancestors but they knew that one was supposed to do certain things. Even the sense of evil, which is very strong with me, would not exist if I had no sense of what evil was.”
Dickey is convinced, then, that being Southern is central to the way he thinks and feels, but doesn't want to be thought of as merely regional; he suggests that the most valuable Southern quality...
(The entire section is 4499 words.)
SOURCE: Starr, William W. “Alnilam: James Dickey's Novel Explores Father and Son Relationships.” In The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations, edited by Ronald Baughman, pp. 258-62. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, which was initially published in 1987, Starr considers the major thematic concerns of Dickey's Alnilam.]
James Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, is definitely not another Deliverance, which created a storm of acclaim and readership when it appeared seventeen years ago.
But that's just fine with Dickey, author of two dozen literary works and holder of a host of prizes to go with them.
… The University of South Carolina poet-in-residence and a Columbian for nearly two decades said, “This is no Deliverance 2 or Son of Deliverance. I'm not going to do that kind of thing. People will just have to take it for what it is.”
And what Alnilam is—once the reader gets by a title that catches in the mouth—is a massive, ambitious, seriously focused novel that at times soars with the majesty and power of Dickey's imaginative writing. It deals with “big” issues: the nature and sources of power, leadership, faith, and the relationship between fathers and sons.
“I'm sixty-four now, and I figure I don't have...
(The entire section is 1874 words.)
SOURCE: Brewer, Angelin P. “‘To Rise above Time’: The Mythic Hero in Dickey's Deliverance and Alnilam.” James Dickey Newsletter 7, no. 1 (fall 1990): 9-14.
[In the following essay, Brewer perceives the storylines of Dickey's two novels as interpretations of the passage of the mythical hero as detailed in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces.]
Ed Gentry and Frank Cahill, protagonists in James Dickey's novels Deliverance (1970) and Alnilam (1987), are called to make a journey. The common pattern of these journeys depicts the three steps in the mythic hero's passage: a withdrawal from the real world, a penetration to a power source, and, finally, a life-enhancing return. Completion of the journey, with its psychological and physical dangers, renders the individual heroic. Chosen by men seemingly confident of their own immortality, Lewis Medlock and Joel Cahill, respectively, Gentry and Cahill initially appear as disciples of these self-styled Christ-figures who wish to transcend the physical. Medlock, who builds his body into an almost indestructible shield, excels as an outdoor sportsman, always in search of mental and physical perfection. Joel Cahill, on the other hand, achieves the immortal perfection by inhabiting the minds of others. His disappearance before Alnilam even opens secures his future existence in the memories of the other young airmen...
(The entire section is 2690 words.)
SOURCE: Schmitt, Ronald. “Transformations of the Hero in James Dickey's Deliverance.” James Dickey Newsletter 8, no. 1 (fall 1991): 9-16.
[In the following essay, Schmitt maintains that Dickey provides an ironic treatment of the mythical hero in his novel Deliverance.]
According to James Dickey himself, the source of the novel Deliverance was a 1949 review essay in the Kenyon Review by Stanley Edgar Hyman which mentions both Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces and Arnold Van Gennep's Les Rites de Passage (Eisiminger 53). According to Hyman, “… as students of myth we must separate from the world, penetrate to a source of knowledge, and return with whatever power of life-enhancement the truth may contain” (qtd. in Eisiminger 53). Dickey himself documents his interest in myth and its importance to modern man:
The parts of the universe we can investigate by means of machinery and scientific empirical techniques we may understand better than our predecessors did, but we no longer know the universe emotionally. It's a great deal easier to relate to the moon emotionally if the moon figures in a kind of mythology which we have inherited, or maybe invented, than it is to relate to it as a collocation of chemical properties. There's no moon goddess now. But when we believed there was, then the moon was more important, maybe...
(The entire section is 3512 words.)
SOURCE: Van Ness, Gordon. “Other Prose: Jericho, God's Images, Wayfarer, and Southern Light.” In Outbelieving Existence: The Measured Motion of James Dickey, pp. 101-11. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House. 1992.
[In the following essay, Van Ness surveys the central thematic concerns of and the critical reaction to Dickey's nonfiction.]
In a 1974 article discussing his efforts and those of painter Hubert Shuptrine to produce a major book about the South, Dickey declares,
I want to write how it feels to be in this place, the South. The essence of it. The mood of it. How it feels to be there on the coast … to go there today and stand looking out over the marshes. And why it feels that way. Every place has its own quality of strangeness. Which is really uniqueness. That's what we want to capture. In paintings and words. The feeling of places.
Jericho: The South Beheld (1974), the book that resulted from the project initiated by Southern Living, was a commercial success and a critical failure. Following the publication in 1970 of The Eye-Beaters, Deliverance, and Self-Interviews, a book where Dickey examines his own life and poetry, he issued Sorties the following year, which contains his journals and several essays. All were intended for...
(The entire section is 5293 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Dave. “James Dickey's Motions.” South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 41-60.
[In the following essay, Smith views Dickey in the context of a Southern writer.]
With the death of Robert Penn Warren, the mantle of preeminent Southern poet seems destined to fall to James Dickey. Wendell Berry, Donald Justice, Eleanor Ross Taylor, and A. R. Ammons are all worthy candidates, but each has deemphasized a Southern identity in ways Dickey has not. Much has been written about James Dickey that is misinformed, silly, or plainly wrong, especially in the latter half of his career. The critical profile ranges from a dismissive, apparently political, condescension to a sycophantic cheering. In A History of Modern Poetry, David Perkins writes tersely of Dickey's “Southern narratives” and implicitly of the facile local color some readers regard as characteristic of Dickey's poetry. Charles Molesworth and Neal Bowers are more expansive but, essentially, view Dickey as a charlatan and boor, extending Robert Bly's early attack on Dickey's poetry for what such critics oppose as socially and politically objectionable opinions. At the other extreme, Robert Kirschten ends his book James Dickey and the Gentle Ecstasy of Earth: A Reading of the Poems with an unbridled partisan cheer when he writes “Long may James Dickey be the slugger of creative daring and commitment to poetry so...
(The entire section is 7393 words.)
SOURCE: Baughman, Ronald. “James Dickey's Alnilam: Toward a True Center Point.” South Carolina Review 26, no. 2 (spring 1994): 173-79.
[In the following essay, Baughman examines the symbolic meaning of the settings in Alnilam.]
James Dickey's second novel, Alnilam, concentrates on three major settings that serve as symbolic constructs within which the principal character pursues transformations in his life. The first setting, an Atlanta amusement park that Frank Cahill, the novel's protagonist, builds as a perverse version of the Garden of Eden, illustrates his fall from or rejection of human society—of family or other human relationships. The second setting, an Army Air Corps training base during the early years of World War II, where Frank searches for information about the fate of his only son, is yet another closed environment, but one in which a highly organized group of air cadets endeavor to ascend beyond the realm of ordinary human experience into a mystical state associated with revolution and nihilism. These two settings represent extreme opposites in the continuum of human society—the first enclosing a purposely isolated middle-aged man whose failure is that of the human heart, the second enclosing a community of visionary, messianic, and potentially dangerous youths, whose failure is that of the human intellect. The third setting, Boyd McLendon's Peckover Hotel,...
(The entire section is 2893 words.)
SOURCE: Suarez, Ernest. “Deliverance: Dickey's Original Screenplay.” Southern Quarterly 33, no. 2 (winter-summer 1994-1995): 161-69.
[In the following essay, Suarez juxtaposes Dickey's novel with the film version of Deliverance.]
James Dickey and director John Boorman battled over the making of Deliverance to the point that Dickey was asked to leave the set. To Dickey's chagrin, Boorman cut the original screenplay's first twenty-five pages, altered scenes and changed the film's ending in order to create a more commercially palatable product. After the film was finished, Boorman felt that he had influenced Dickey's product to the extent that he claimed co-authorship, which would have entitled Boorman to approximately ＄250,000. Though the Screen Writers' Guild eventually adjudicated in Dickey's favor, and though the film received much critical acclaim and generated Dickey a huge amount of publicity, Dickey has continued to express dissatisfaction with the movie. Dickey's primary objection resides in Boorman's handling of characterization, as the director's emphasis on creating a taut, thrilling adventure film left little room for what Dickey calls “the psychological orientation—the being of the characters, their interrelations, their talk with each other, the true dramatic progression … it is not the film as I would have it … though something which resembles the original...
(The entire section is 3994 words.)
SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “Spirit-Bird, Bowshot, Water-Snake, Corpses, Cosmic Love: Reshaping the Coleridge Legacy in Dickey's Deliverance.” Papers on Language and Literature 31, no. 4 (fall 1995): 389-405.
[In the following essay, Bidney underscores the relationship between Dickey's Deliverance and the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.]
I'd like to be some sort of bird, a migratory seabird like a tern or a wandering albatross. But … I'll have to keep trying to do it, to die and fly, by words.
—James Dickey, Self-Interviews 79
“I like to work my mind, such as it is,” said James Dickey to Francis Roberts in 1968, “to see what I can get out of it and put into it. As John Livingston Lowes revealed in that wonderful book on Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu, if these things are in your mind, Lord knows what amalgams you can get out of it” (Baughman, Voiced 44). Two years later, in his 1970 novel Deliverance, Dickey demonstrated his capacity to produce not only a visionary “amalgam” of the sort he found laid out in Lowes but, more surprisingly, a richly suggestive pattern of allusions to the work of Coleridge himself. In what follows I would like to offer a brief “Road to Deliverance,” exploring that neo-Coleridgean pattern and its (re)visionary implications....
(The entire section is 5620 words.)
SOURCE: Hassan, Ihab. “The Spirit of Quest in Contemporary American Letters.” In Rumors of Change: Essays of Five Decades, pp. 187-207. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995..
[In the following excerpt, Hassan contrasts the two main characters—Ed and Lewis—in Dickey's novel Deliverance.]
In contrast to Bellow's and Mailer's fictions, James Dickey's Deliverance (1970) seems less a quest than a brutal tale of survival. The reader may wonder: deliverance from what? From moral complacencies, social pieties, perhaps from civilization itself? The clues are scattered, and in one place they become nearly explicit. Making love to his wife on the morning of his fateful adventure, the narrator, Ed Gentry, imagines—he is on the whole steady, unimaginative—the golden eye of a girl, a studio model: “The gold eye shone, not with the practicality of sex, so necessary to its survival, but the promise of it that promised other things, another life, deliverance.” Another life, deliverance: there lies the book's knot, which links its two heroes, Ed Gentry and Lewis Medlock, doubles.
Ed—all are called by their first names—is practical and forthright, given to the task at hand; Lewis is visionary. Lewis seeks immortality and learns finally to settle for death. In the interim, he trains himself implacably, trains his instincts, will, and powerful body, to survive an atomic...
(The entire section is 973 words.)
SOURCE: Butterworth, Keen. “The Savage Mind: James Dickey's Deliverance.” Southern Literary Journal 28, no. 2 (spring 1996): 69-78.
[In the following essay, Butterworth provides an interpretation of the psychological aspects of Deliverance.]
On the dust jacket of the first edition of James Dickey's Deliverance an eye peers out through a surrounding cluster of hemlock fronds. It is not the poison hemlock shrub of Socrates, but the benign water-loving hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) of our Appalachian forests. It would grow in abundance, probably in virgin stands, along the Cahulawassee, the fictional river on which most of the story of Deliverance takes place. The fronds provide the screen of Nature from which the eye looks out. The eye's blue iris is the color of the sky—or of clear deep pools of water. The white ball is the color of clouds—or of turbid falling waters. The skin around the eye has the green cast of deep forests. Is it the eye of the murderous mountaineer? The eye of the narrator Ed Gentry? Of some Nature spirit or pantheistic god? Is it the eye of the author? Probably it is all of these, for it is the eye of the book itself.
In lectures and readings Dickey often quotes the final statement of Rilke's poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”: “You must change your life.” (Du muss dein leben andern.) This, says Dickey, is what all...
(The entire section is 4465 words.)
SOURCE: Thompson, Terry. “Cahulawassee: The Bend Sinister River in Deliverance.” English Language Notes 36, no. 2 (December 1998): 44-8.
[In the following essay, Thompson considers the “heraldic symbolism” found in Dickey's Deliverance.]
Originally published in 1970, Deliverance, James Dickey's first and most popular novel, has been much lauded for its poetic description of nature and for its vivid narration of a harrowing canoe trip down a wild Georgia river by four would-be outdoorsmen from Atlanta whose adventurous weekend getaway quickly turns into a bloody nightmare once they discover “the primordial dangers of the river.”1 Their overly romanticized view of nature—and what might lurk in it—is shattered by their encounter with human savagery and depravity, including torture, rape, and murder. The naive quartet of urban Nimrods learn through blood trial that, as D. H. Lawrence once argued, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”2
Although lambasted in the early seventies by numerous social and political critics for its machismo and violence, Deliverance became a huge best-seller since “The plot had the ingredients for a surefire success, the old adventure story of hunter and hunted in a modern setting, with urban men forced to regain primitive instincts in order to kill and...
(The entire section is 1462 words.)
SOURCE: Gwynn, R. S. “Subject Matters.” Hudson Review 52, no. 2 (summer 1999): 323-31.
[In the following excerpt, Gwynn compares Dickey's work and declining critical reputation to that of the Georgian poets, especially Rupert Brooke.]
No group of poets has suffered worse at the hands of posterity than the Georgians, whose poems were collected in five eponymous semiannual anthologies. The last of these had the misfortune to appear in the same year as The Waste Land, and after Eliot, Edith Sitwell, and Middleton Murry had finished mopping the floor with it, the Georgians were consigned to the back matter of the history of modernism. Of their number, none has been devalued more than Rupert Brooke, who is remembered chiefly as the poster boy for British army recruitment, the result of the great popularity of “1914,” the sonnet sequence he wrote in the last year of his life. Brooke, who by all accounts was intelligent, handsome, charming, a bit facetious, and a fearlessly outspoken Fabian in matters political, would doubtless have been appalled by the reasons for his posthumous fame. But, to readers familiar with Sassoon, Graves, and Owen, his lines comparing a foredoomed generation's call to the trenches to “swimmers into cleanness leaping” seem hopelessly, even criminally naive.
A shame in a way, for the poetry on which Brooke built a not inconsiderable reputation...
(The entire section is 1328 words.)
SOURCE: Donoghue, Denis. “Lives of a Poet.” New York Review of Books 46, no. 18 (18 November 1999): 55-7.
[In the following review, Donoghue discusses Dickey's public persona as well as poets that influenced his writing, particularly Theodore Roethke.]
In November 1968 James Dickey told readers of the Atlantic Monthly that Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was “in my opinion the greatest poet this country has yet produced.” He also took the opportunity to rebuke Beatrice Roethke for allegedly setting a limit on Allan Seager's disclosures in The Glass House, his biography of her husband:
It may be that she has come to regard herself as the sole repository of the “truth” of Roethke, which is understandable as a human—particularly a wifely—attitude, but is not pardonable in one who commissions a biography from a serious writer.
In the December issue of the magazine several prominent poets and critics replied to Dickey's essay. While they rejected his nomination of Roethke as the greatest American poet, none of them wondered aloud how he had disposed of Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, and Stevens before awarding the prize. Nor did any of them remark that Dickey seemed to be claiming Roethke for himself and fending off rival suitors, even the poet's widow. That the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress...
(The entire section is 3506 words.)
SOURCE: Hart, Henry. “James Dickey: The World as a Lie.” Sewanee Review 108, no. 1 (winter 2000): 93-106.
[In the following essay, Hart addresses the problems in researching Dickey's life story, asserting that “nearly everything Dickey said about his life was an embroidery of fiction and fact.”]
When James Dickey died on January 19, 1997, most of the obituaries—from the six-column one in the New York Times to the shorter ones in Time and Newsweek—paid tribute to the big, life-loving, hard-drinking bard who had written the best-selling novel Deliverance. The eulogists pointed out that he had been a star college football player, a combat pilot with one hundred missions during World War II and the Korean War, an advertising executive for the Coca-Cola company, a tournament archer and expert bow-hunter, a National Book Award-winning poet, a poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, a popular professor, and an author of poetry books, coffee-table books, literary criticism, novels, and children's books. In Dickey's hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, David Kirby announced that “A boozy, bold ‘Dylan Thomas of the South,’” had died, and that Dickey had “staked out the position of premier tough-guy writer that Ernest Hemingway had held in the previous generation.” Kirby also contended that Dickey was an aesthete and impersonator...
(The entire section is 4972 words.)
SOURCE: Meyers, Jeffrey. A review of Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, by James Dickey. New Criterion 18, no. 9 (May 2000): 69.
[In the following unfavorable assessment, Meyers derides the errors in and superficial treatment of Dickey's collected letters.]
Virgil's Aeneas, weeping over the frescoes that depict the fall of Troy, voices the tragic sense of life that animates all poets: “Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience.” In “Resolution and Independence,” Wordsworth describes the wrenching extremes of a poet's moods:
But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might Of joy in minds that can no further go, As high as we have mounted in delight In our dejection do we sink as low.
James Dickey (1923-97), handsome, blond and blue-eyed, formidably energetic, large, and larger than life, scaled the heights. College athlete, air force navigator, advertising executive, guitarist, archer, hunter, teacher, performer and poet laureate, winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Book Award, he covered the Apollo launching for Life and read his poetry at President Carter's inauguration. He made more money from his writing than any American poet of his time. In 1996 his income was ＄187,000, his assets ＄800,000, and he was “practically a conglomerate.” But he knew the tears of things, and caused a good many of them to be...
(The entire section is 3370 words.)
SOURCE: Hart, Henry. “James Dickey: Journey to War.” Southern Review 36, no. 2 (spring 2000): 348-77.
[In the following essay, Hart investigates the ways in which Dickey's wartime experiences affected his poetic sensibility.]
During the spring of 1945, Radar Officer James Dickey was hard at work composing poems and reading Louis Untermeyer's poetry anthology and Shakespeare's sonnets. He paid particular attention to Untermeyer's selection of Ernest Dowson's delicate, antiquated lyrics, and tried to imitate them in his own poems. He liked Dowson so much that he asked his mother on May 29 to find his Dowson collection, copy out several poems, and send them to him. He also asked her to send a biography of Dowson by Mark Longaker, and grew furious when she suggested, after having bought the book, that she might return it to the store. To show Dowson's beneficial effects on his style, he mailed her one of his imitations:
I having found in you more than dreams more sunlight than pride or wine huddles in the heart, now sanction, before diaphanous memories bequeath us to nothingness effete—
the sun winking the slow radiance fading dissolving the lean shadows— all glorious things in utter loveliness stand held in an instant fleeting to darkness
It was Dowson's sentimental melancholia and his gift for phrase-making that made him attractive. “It's funny,”...
(The entire section is 12563 words.)
Glancy, Eileen. James Dickey: The Critic as Poet, An Annotated Bibliography with An Introductory Essay. Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing Co., 1971, 107 p.
Primary and secondary bibliography.
Calhoun, Richard J., and Robert W. Hill. James Dickey. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983, 156 p.
Biographical and critical study.
Hart, Henry. James Dickey: The World as a Lie. New York: Picador, 2000, 811 p.
Biographical study of Dickey.
Alexander, George L. “A Psychoanalytic Observation on the Scopophilic Imagery in James Dickey's Deliverance.” James Dickey Newsletter, 11, no. 1 (fall 1994): 2-11.
Traces the scopophilic theme in Dickey's novel.
Baughman, Ronald. Understanding James Dickey. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985, 174 p.
Full-length critical study of Dickey's poetry, novels, and literary criticism.
———, ed. The Voiced Connections of James Dickey: Interviews and Conversations. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989, 281 p.
Collection of interviews with and essays on Dickey.
Bowers, Neal. James Dickey: The Poet...
(The entire section is 591 words.)